The latest changes in the list of participants for the Syrian peace conference – especially the absence of Iran - raise doubts about the potential outcomes of Geneva II.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left), U.S. State Secretary John Kerry (center), UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (right). Source: AP

On January 22, a group of the great and the good (and the not-so-good) are supposed to be meeting under the auspices of the United Nations in a hotel in Montreux in order to begin negotiations over an end to the conflict in Syria.  The following day, they will all move to Geneva where the real negotiations will start, so we are told.  The problem, however, is that we do not know who will be there or even what they can or will discuss!

Who will be there?

Of course, the United Nations special envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will be there, as will the representatives of the eleven Western and Arab countries – the Gulf monarchies, Britain, France and the United States amongst them – who make up the ‘Friends of Syria.’  Russia will also attend – after all, the conference was largely its idea, with support from the United States.  There will be a delegation from the Syrian government as well.

However, Iran, Syria’s major ally, will not attend, largely because of American disapproval.  Mr. Kerry, the Obama administration’s very active Secretary of State, in response to opposition in Congress to a full-blooded Iranian role in the conference, did suggest that Teheran could help ‘from the sidelines’ but the Iranian government, understandably insulted, declined the offer. A later proposal for Iran’s participation from the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had to be withdrawn at the last minute because of American, British and Syrian opposition disapproval.

The really big uncertainty, however, is to know who will attend from the Syrian opposition: None of the groups involved in the fighting will take part for they see the conference as little short of treachery to the Syrian revolution.  Their refusal was, no doubt, anticipated by the organizers; of much greater concern to them will be the positions taken by the multitude of fragmented Syrian opposition movements.

The main body, the Syrian National Coalition, favored by the West and led by human rights activist Ahmed Jarba (who has just been re-elected to lead it and who is close to Saudi Arabia), was not at all anxious to go despite massive Western pressure. In the end, though, it reluctantly agreed to attend. Instead, it wanted more arms for its affiliate, the Free Syrian Army, and, as it decided last November, would only join the meeting if President Assad left power, prisoners held by the regime were released and aid to refugees being attacked by the Syrian army was dramatically increased.

A Damascus-based opposition, the National Coordination for Democratic Change, which is tolerated by the Assad regime, has already announced that it will boycott the meeting because the organizers have insisted it should join the Coalition and because it believes the meeting will fail in its primary objective – the construction of a new transitional government in which the Assad regime would play no part. A third group, led Mustapha Sabbagh who is close to Qatar, has just broken away from the Coalition because it fears that Mr. Jarba will eventually buckle under Western pressure, so it, too, will also be absent from the meeting.

As the meeting approached, diplomatic activity also reached a crescendo.  Whilst British, French and American diplomats applied pressure to the Coalition, meeting in Istanbul, it was the Russians that took the public stage. On January 16 and 17, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif and then his Syrian counterpart, Walid Mouallem.  Indeed, for Russia, Geneva II will be the culmination of its success in imposing its own agenda on its former rival, the United States.

Mr. Lavrov made it clear that he believed that Iran should be a full partner in the Geneva negotiations.  He also welcomed a Syrian proposal for a ceasefire and a prisoner exchange in Aleppo, as a first step in the confidence-building measures that might eventually lead to an end to conflict.  There was no mention by either Mr Lavrov or Mr Mouallem, however, of the key demand of the opposition – that President Assad should step down from power.  Indeed, neither statesman seemed to think it important, even though the ostensible purpose of Geneva II, at least as far as the Friends of Syria are concerned, is to set up the transitional government that will replace the Assad regime.

The situation on the ground

In fact, it is difficult to suppress the feeling that the conference has become an exercise in unreality for the situation in Syria. It further suggests that most of the conference’s declared objectives are increasingly irrelevant to what is happening inside the country.  The tide of fighting has, over recent months, tilted towards the regime, although it is increasingly suffering from a dearth of forces and cannot always hold territory it conquers, even with support from Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Quds Force from Iran.  Thus, recent successes in Aleppo have exposed the southern city of Jassem, the Damascene neighbourhood of Ghouta and the Qatamoun region on the Lebanese border, all in the south of the country, to attack.

The opposition, on the other hand, is increasingly fragmented.  Western-supported Free Syrian Army forces complain of being starved of essential supplies and recently saw their stocks raided by the allegedly moderate and Saudi-backed Islamic Front.  Yet both the Army and the Islamic Front have turned on extremist groups in the North, forcing them temporarily out of Raqqa.  In other parts of the country, an uneasy peace reigns between extremist and moderate Islamist forces whilst the Kurds, along the Turkish border, reject all opposition forces in the territories they control.  It is, however, the case that the extremist Islamist groups – the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and the Nusra Front – are gradually coming to dominate the armed struggle. Even though they have no state sponsor, they are liberally funded by private donors in the Gulf.

The Assad regime in Damascus must now relish the irony that what it always claimed was the case – that it was threatened by Islamist extremists and terrorists – is now coming true.  Shortly before the conference was due to begin, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Miqdad, hinted that the security services of many Western countries that had turned on the Assad regime were now crowding to Damascus to learn what they could about the potential threat to their own countries from the growth of extremist resistance in Syria.  As early as last April the International Center for the Study of Radicalization in London claimed that then there were between 2,000 and 5,000 foreign fighters in Syria, of whom between 135 and 590 came from Europe and by now these numbers will have significantly increased.


Against that background, it is little wonder that the Assad regime feels that it can safely ignore demands that it connive at its own demise in Geneva. Instead it can anticipate that, with Russian support, Western powers will have to stifle their dislike of the regime in Damascus in order to gain the cooperation they will need to deal with the extremist spill over within their own borders. Even ostensible opposition supporters, like Turkey, have begun to crack down on extremists from Syria on their national territories. Nor is it surprising, then, that the Syrian opposition is so reluctant to go to Geneva, for all that it can expect to hear there, as any Zen Buddhist would know, is the sound of one hand clapping!

But, then again, it is probably more important that Geneva II should take place than that it should have a definable outcome.  After all, if it initiates a process for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, that will ultimately offer more hope than a brutal military stalemate or, worse, an extremist victory.  As Jihad Makdissi, a former Syrian diplomat and foreign minister spokesman until 2012, argued in a recent article in the New York Times, all sides in the conflict are exhausted and need to catch their breath.  And it is in that interstice that hope might lie, for diplomatic processes can eventually lead to results when fighting cannot.